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Research suggests that LED-studded fishing nets can reduce sea turtle bycatch by 64 percent

Fishing nets are a fairly simple piece of equipment, and their design has largely remained unchanged for hundreds of years — but scientists have recently devised a clever new upgrade that could make nets more effective, and also safer for sea life. By placing LEDs on fishing nets at 33 foot intervals across the length, researchers were able to warn sea turtles of a net’s presence, without scaring off fish. These LED-augmented nets are affordable to produce, and were able to protect 64 percent more turtles from untimely deaths, according to a recent study.

Darwin Initiative fellow Dr. Jeffrey Mangel is the brains behind this profoundly simple solution. He tested the LED fishing nets in Peru’s Sechura Bay, since various sea turtle species use those waters as feeding grounds. Local marine conservation organization ProDelphinus supported the tests in their effort to protect Peru’s marine ecosystem, as thousands of turtles are killed unintentionally every year when they’re caught in nets intended for fish. Mangel and the team tested 218 total nets, with one unlit control net and one net illuminated by the series of LEDs in each pair. Only 62 turtles were caught in the LED nets during the testing phase, compared to 125 in the control nets.

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Since there is no fundamental change to the nets themselves, the only added cost of this turtle-saving idea is the price of the LEDs themselves. During the testing phase, covering a 1,640 foot net with 50 LED lights only cost about $100. Even on that small testing scale, the cost of saving one turtle worked out to be about $34. With innovations in LED technology that make the bulbs more affordable, it is expected that the cost of LED fishing nets could be reduced even further.

Mangel and his team are working with larger fisheries in attempt to roll out the solution on a larger scale, saving more turtles and also lowering the overall cost of the project. The team is also experimenting with different LED colors to see if endangered species other than turtles might respond in a similar way — thereby saving even more types of sea life from an untimely end. Marine scientists hope that increasing the efficiency of net fishing without unwanted bycatch will provide a boost to the sustainability of the fishing industry, and support the success of both fishing communities and ocean ecosystems.